We did a longer road trip on Sunday, 10/7. We went north up the pacific coast to the end of the Joban expressway and then west, about ½ way across into the mountainous interior on the Ban-Etsu expressway. This is fairly far north, and very few non-Japanese tourists make it up here. Actually, it's still quite a ways north to the tip of Honshu (the main island of Japan), but much of the northern peninsula is pretty remote. We looked into driving or taking a train to Hokkaido (there's a v-e-r-y long tunnel that connects Honshu and Hokkaido), but that is one LONG trip! It will have to wait 'til next time, and we'll fly.
The expressways allowed us to make good time, and we got there in about 3 hours. However, as I've stated before, they're expensive; we spent something over $160 just for tolls and gas (costs less than in Europe, but far more than in the US) for the day. We had fun getting gas at a "typical" gas station, where the attendant runs out, shouting and directing you to the pump, and then when you're ready to leave, he stops traffic and directs you back out onto the road. Too funny! Sorry I didn't get any pictures.
Aizu-Wakamatsu is a town with an interesting history from the shogun days ... much political intrigue. There's a castle, and it's famous for a group of 19-year old samurai, dubbed the "White Tigers," who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) during the Boshin Civil War in 1874. Unfortunately, like most castles in Japan, this one was destroyed a long time ago and is currently a 1965 unimaginative concrete reconstruction. The walls and moat are original, and there's a nice garden and tea house. There's a good view from the 5th storey; however, the smog was pretty awful (they do lots of burning in the fields and it was really thick on this particular day), and the town itself had nothing going for it. Most Japanese towns and cities are quite ugly - nondescript concrete buildings and masses of overhead lines ... but VERY clean, no litter at all.
Mt. Bandi, on the other hand, was fantastic! This volcano is 1800 m high (surrounding land is 300 m), backed by higher mountains. It erupted in 1888, destroying villages, damming rivers, forming lakes, and losing much of its north face and top (600 m) in the process. It makes for some impressive countryside. There are beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes, and ski areas.
We hiked along a popular nature trail, through an area with 11 marshes, lakes, and ponds, called the "Five Colors Lakes" because of the fantastic colors rendered by minerals in the water ... which change dependent on weather conditions.
We had a grand time ... happy to have the opportunity to get out and explore the country a bit.